TOPEKA — Pittsburg State University president Steve Scott is convinced Kansas higher education justifiably pushed limits of in-person instruction this fall semester in the face of COVID-19 gyrations threatening to throw colleges and universities off balance.
The number at PSU students contracting COVID-19 spiked recently to reach 450 on the southeast Kansas campus. Scott attributed the heavy caseload among 6,000 students on campus to its proximity to Missouri, which has a “very, very different environment about mask wearing and accepting some of the restrictions that other communities and states have adopted.”
Pitt State and other universities in the Kansas Board of Regents system are transitioning to online instruction at the Thanksgiving break, but PSU slipped in socially distanced graduation ceremonies Friday for fall graduates and events Saturday for spring and summer graduates. In Manhattan, Kansas State University pulled the plug on a modified commencement program for safety reasons.
“As we look at the surge in infections,” Scott said, “I don’t know that we could have gone a day more, honestly. I think there’s a little blind luck in that, maybe a little bit of calculation. We did dial in as much face-to-face as we could possibly get done. Thank goodness we’re all moving to remote learning.”
So far, Kansas health officials have confirmed 134,500 cases of COVID-19 statewide since March. The state has suffered 1,410 deaths and 4,682 hospitalizations linked to the coronavirus. The median age of Kansans contracting the virus is 38, with most hospitalizations and fatalities among elderly people.
Rija Khan, student body president at Wichita State University, said the fall semester had been challenging for students who reached the point of burnout due to COVID-19. She said universities in the Board of Regents system needed to expand and diversity personnel devoted to mental health counseling and to make certain these services were affordable for students.
“Not just one university, but all of them,” she said. “We need to include in spring semester some wellness days.”
The pandemic forced overhaul of 2020-2021 academic calendars at the 32 community and technical colleges and universities serving 240,000 students in Kansas. It altered or blocked many activities that typically afford students an opportunity engage in college life — parties, athletic events, performing arts, public lectures, graduation exercises.
“The pandemic has presented some continued challenges for our system,” said Cheryl Harrison-Lee, a Gardner member of the Board of Regents. “We’re going to keep working collectively to safeguard the health and safety of everyone at our institutions and deliver the high-quality education that the students deserve.”
Cowley College president Dennis Rittle, who leads the community college in Arkansas City, said there was high anxiety coming into the fall semester as to whether the state’s kaleidoscope of higher education institutions could maneuver through the pandemic until December.
“Most of us had feelings of trepidation coming into fall,” he said. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, as the phrase goes, and we don’t think it’s a train coming.”
The six public state universities in the Board of Regents system have documented more than 3,500 cases of COVID-19 from August through this week. The University of Kansas has the largest infection pool at 1,305, a figure driven by a rigorous testing program. Kansas State has reported 1,183 cases, while about 200 cases have been detected on each of the Wichita State, Emporia State University and Fort Hays State University campuses.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s latest roster of COVID-19 cluster sites includes outbreaks at ESU, FHSU, PSU, Hutchinson Community College, Allen County Community College in Iola, Benedictine College in Atchison and Sterling College.
KU’s robust approach to COVID-19 monitoring prompted 36,000 tests that resulted in a positivity rate of 0.5% before a dramatic uptick to 2.4% in the past week resulting in more hospitalizations in Lawrence, said KU chancellor Doug Girod.
Girod, a physician, said KU expects to perform about 1,500 exit coronavirus tests ahead of the holiday break for benefit of people leaving campus for periods of up to two months. KU intends to delay start of the 2020 spring semester until Feb. 1. The returning faculty, staff and students will undergo mandatory testing just as they did in August for the fall semester.
“I do think, however, that we’ve completed proof of concept that we can conduct face-to-face education and do so safely in our environments,” he said. “We’re not aware of any conduction of COVID in a classroom setting where every policy has been followed.”
On that point, Board of Regents member Janet Brandau-Murguia of Kansas City, Kansas, questioned the capacity of students to acclimate to this complex blend of remote computer learning and face-to-face instruction. She said she read a news report indicating K-12 students weren’t performing well under hybrid teaching conditions prompted by the coronavirus.
“Motivation is an issue,” she said. “Personal accountability is lacking just because they’re having limited contact with their instructors.”
Girod, the KU chancellor, said some students gravitated to the hybrid model, some muddled through it all and some obviously struggled. He said freshmen students were most likely to have a difficult time, because they started college in a bizarre environment without opportunities to learn how a university worked and get their arms around resources available to them.
“I think we’ve heard pretty clearly from freshmen, it’s been a challenge for them,” Girod said. “They just did not have that foundation to build on as they showed up in the fall.”
Scott, the Pittsburg State president, said the pandemic inflicted damage on the socialization typical of college campuses. Students have shared concern that wearing a mask and social distancing undercut prospects of making new friends, he said. This reality is likely to influence student retention across higher education in Kansas, he said.
Kansas State president Richard Myers said there were financial, social and academic impacts on students, but he didn’t consider these problems widespread.
“I teach a class myself,” he said. “Frankly, our class is pretty engaged. I think it’s more engaged in our hybrid mode as it was in-person.”
Surge a concern
Myers said Kansas State’s 13,000 coronavirus tests since mid-March had identified the 1,138 positive cases of infection. That had been running at a 9% pace, he said, but the recent escalation in Kansas pushed KSU’s figure above 10%. He said his most recent reports indicated Kansas State had 314 students in quarantine and 159 in isolation due to COVID-19.
He praised students, faculty and staff for their collective sense of grace during the unprecedented health crisis.
“We asked them to reach really deep between March and the end of this semester in terms of their flexibility, to reach deep in terms of their resilience,” he said. “I am just so grateful for the colleagues we have here at K-State, the faculty, staff and students who have done that.”
Myers said KSU’s downsized fall semester graduation plans were scrapped because it was decided the university couldn’t conduct a program safely.
“Obviously, not a popular thing,” the president said. “The optics of having a graduation going on across the street from a hospital that was turning COVID patients away just didn’t make sense.”
The Kansas State president said the plan was to bring students back to the Manhattan campus Jan. 25 for in-person and online instruction. He said the ongoing surge in COVID-19 was worrisome in terms of holding to that academic calendar.
“If we haven’t bent this curve down by next January and if the hospitals are above capacity as they are today throughout the state, I think one thing we’ll have to consider is: Do we bring students back at all in January?” he said. “We’ll have to see where we are. My bet is we can do it. But the numbers will tell us whether we can do it or not.”
Board of Regents member Shellaine Kiblinger, who is superintendent of Cherryvale public schools, said the state should give consideration to including educators among people given priority in distribution of a vaccine.
She said Kansans involved with teaching pre-K through college classes were at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, but compelled to work with younger Americans who would probably end up at the back of the vaccine line. He asked Girod, who also has responsibility for the KU Medical Center, which has participated in a national coronavirus vaccine trial, to help make the case that educators should be considered essential workers.
“If you have any influence with anyone who is part of those conversations, I hope you will continue to put that idea forth,” Kiblinger said.
Girod said he would carry that message, but didn’t expect an approved vaccine to begin arriving until December. He said health workers and first-responders were the obvious priority along with people in high-risk medical categories and those over age 65.
“Thankfully,” the chancellor said, “I think our health care workers will start seeing it perhaps by the first of the year.”